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Saturday, April 5, 2014

Taiwan's Sunflower Movement: My photos

We're now nearly 3 weeks into what has become known as the Sunflower Movement 太陽花學運, a student led protest, which begun on March 18th when a group of young activists occupied Taiwan's Legislative Yuan 立法院 (a.k.a. parliament) to block the passing of a controversial trade deal with China, that would allow Chinese companies to establish branches in Taiwan, and compete in the local services industry (such as healthcare, tourism, telecommunications, banking, and even publishing). Not only are people afraid that local companies will have to compete with cheap labor and cheaper prices (something China is known to be best at), but that a greater involvement of the communist neighbor in Taiwan's economy will be a threat to democracy and freedom of speech in the future. This is based on the fact that China (an authoritarian one-party state, one of the worst offenders of human rights) often uses its economic power to assert political influence on other smaller countries. What started as protest of a shady legislative procedure has now evolved into a general anti-government movement, accompanied with an awakening of national identity and greater participation of civil society in policies concerning agreements with China.

Outside the Legislative Yuan: 3 different areas

Ever since the movement started, I have reported on it on my Facebook Page almost daily, because I have great interest in what's happening, but I was not part of any protest, nor was physically present anywhere close to the Legislative Yuan. While I admire the courage of those who peacefully and legally protest for something they strongly believe will make their country's future brighter, I also acknowledged that this is not my fight, and that as a foreigner I do not want to get involved, and that my family is right now my first priority. Today however I had the spontaneous idea to see the area around the Legislative Yuan with my own eyes, take some photos, and share them with my readers. That way I can have an even better understanding of the whole situation, and since I have a lot of readers who are not able to be in Taipei right now, I hope to give them the chance to see how the area actually looks like these days. As I arrived at the site, I realized that there are actually 3 different areas :

1) Qingdao East Road: This is the main area, most people are located at the crossing with Zhenjiang Street. The students are sitting there, and there's also a heavy media presence.

2) Jinan Road: This is the second area where students have erected tents and are sitting in protest. The road is wider, and less crowded. There's also more police presence, and some parts are protected with barbed wire.

3) A small strip of Zhongshan South Road: This area is located between the first two and is mainly occupied by members of the Taiwan Independence movement. They had speeches (in Taiwanese), and they were covering the street with their banners as I was walking by this morning. Most of them are of older generation.

Click here to enlarge my map.

Photos from the Sunflower Movement

I went out at the NTU Hospital Station Exit 2, and walked towards Zhongshan South Road, which was the main site of excessive police force on March 23. As I was walking northwards towards the Legislative Yuan, I felt a little bit uneasy. It looked so clean and peaceful now (today is a beautiful sunny day with 27 degrees Celsius), but less than two weeks ago water canons and riot police with batons were clearing the street, leaving a trace of blood and bruises along the way. As I finally reached the area, I decided to take some photos from afar before I entered, and see what the protesters are doing today, and how everything looks like.

I first passed by the Jinan Road, the second area of the protest.

Strong messages like these were a common sight.

This part looked familiar: These protesters are often seen in Ximending.

This is part of the Zhongshan South Road that is occupied with Taiwan Independence groups.

The intersection between Zhongshan South Road and Qingdao East Road was crowded.

This banner was erected today in the morning.

Looks like this group joined the students recently.

Unfortunately I did not cut off part of the banner, it's Engrish.

Another independence banner was erected on the other side of the street.

Zhongshan South Road today.

The banner says: The services pact equals to selling Taiwan.

I entered the Qingdao East Road.

A punch bag with the president's face. How often was it used?

A look back.

Messages, perhaps prayers for Taiwan... similar to those in European churches.

Beautiful Taiwanese newswomen.

Japanese media was introducing this wall full of interesting posters.

At the heart of the protest outside the Legislative Yuan.

It was extremely hot, the media visibly suffered together with the protesters.

Zhenjiang Street offered some shelter from the sun, but not much.

They weren't just sitting, they were having discussions.

This poster tries to make us believe that Abe and Obama are against the services pact.

Another discussion under the scorching sun.

A forest of cameras.

Further inside Qingdao East Road the protest area is ending.

A very graphic metaphor.

A reminder of the bloody clashes on March 23.

Grabbing the president by the antlers? Almost.

I headed to the second area and passed by the Taiwan Independence group.

This man was having a speech, behind him you can see police on guard.

Business with sunflower symbols is flourishing. I have not seen any sausages stands.

I kinda felt bad for the police to be dressed up like this on such a hot day.

Protesters at the Jinan Road were listening to a speech.

This man did not really excite anyone today, people looked tired, it was very hot.

Barb-wired barricades were protecting the Legislative Yuan from further breaches.

These tents were put up right in the middle of the road.

A wall of posters depicting Hitler: Tasteless, and insensitive for Europeans like me. Luckily I did not see many of these elsewhere.

A big sunflower, the symbol of the movement.

An improvised way of drying laundry.

The only media I have seen at Jinan Road.

After walking around Jinan Road for a while, I decided to head back home, but I wanted to pass by the Office of the President to see what's going on there. The Ketagalan Boulevard was half empty, the barricades are still intact, and the police presence is high. I was wondering what is the president thinking right now? What will be his next move? It's hard to say, but I'm sure he's considering all possibilities. I'm rather pessimistic, and I'm expecting a police crackdown at the Legislative Yuan, but we will see. Next week might be crucial, the occupation will be in its fourth week. There are signs of exhaustion on both sides. In the past week a KMT legislator has openly voiced support for the students, while a group of students disillusioned with the leader Lin Fei-fan split and left. Who will be the first to crack and crumble? Who will be the first to lose nerves, and use violence to achieve their goal? All that we might find out next week, or maybe much later. There's only one thing I hope: I hope that after this conflict is finally over, Taiwan's democracy will be stronger, not weaker as before.

Taiwan's center of power: What is being planned behind these barricades?

Follow me on Facebook or Twitter to get instant updates on the Sunflower Movement.

Sunday, March 30, 2014

Taiwan's Sunflower Movement: What is the end game?

I'm sitting in my apartment just a few kilometers away from Taiwan's occupied Legislative Yuan. I can see the Shin Kong Life Tower from my window, it always felt very far away, but these days it feels very close. The occupied Legislative Yuan is right around there, so is the Office of the President and the Executive Yuan, the 3 government institutions, that play a key role in Taiwan's Sunflower Student Movement, that has become the most talked about event in the country since March 18th. All eyes and cameras are directed towards the students right now, and even foreign media has discovered this (for a democracy) very unusual situation. I didn't write anything on my blog so far, because I was too busy reporting on the developments on my Facebook page and Twitter. So many things happened so fast in the first few days, it was a roller coaster of emotions, being able to jot down my thoughts in my usual manner was not possible. I'm not sure I will succeed here, but I want to try.

I find Twitter and Facebook perfect for short frequent updates, you can reach a lot of people and get a lot of instant feedback, but the attention span of the recipients is much shorter than of those who read my blog. Writing this post is difficult, because I don't know what I really want to say, I didn't draft anything coherent in my mind before I started to write. One thing is sure right now: We're nearly two weeks into the protest, and I am very concerned. I've been closely following the crisis in Ukraine since the beginning, and I'm seeing some frightening parallels with Taiwan. And not only long term parallels, but also short term. I'm seeing a pretext of a new Maidan here in Taipei. And that's a very scary thought. Maidan was brutal and bloody, it was perhaps necessary, or at least unavoidable (only history will tell), but it left Ukraine weak, almost in shambles. Do we want something like this here in Taipei? I definitely don't.

As much as I sympathize with the Sunflower Movement, and the notion of defending Taiwan's democracy and sovereignty for the current and future generations, I'm getting more and more pessimistic regarding the occupation of the Legislative Yuan as yet another day goes by without a solution. The two opposing sides (the government and the protesters) are getting more and more radical every day. Social media is going crazy right now, lots of new accounts backing the movement have appeared out of nowhere, instantly gaining an enormous amount of followers, some of them trying to radicalize the situation by playing on emotion - it's already going too far. Taiwan's President Ma and Premier Jiang have also escalated the situation by extensive use of riot police on March 23, when some protesters tried to storm the Executive Yuan. While clearing the government building was justifiable, the use of water canons and batons outside on the streets was unnecessary and counterproductive, and I believe a big strategic mistake by the government. It delivered a lot of propaganda material to those on the movement's side that are trying to escalate the situation, but also tipped the public opinion strongly against the services pact with China, despite the continuous effort of the pro-government leaning media to smear the protesters as "violent" and "unknowing". We're now in a kind of a stalemate situation, no side is backing off from their point of view, it's very tense and slowly reaching the boiling point. With today's protest in sight, where people from all over Taiwan are expected to gather in Taipei, things might turn violent pretty quickly. I strongly hope not, but I'm very concerned. And now that the cat is out of the bag, and by that I mean the use of police force, it will not take as long as before to unleash policemen on the protesters, because the psychological barrier is already broken.

What is the end game here? How long can we all afford to have the legislative branch crippled, and the country deeply split, and politically unstable? How long before the economy is affected, and China decides to openly meddle into Taiwan's affairs? All these questions occupy my mind these days, and I haven't found any answers. I have a small child, a wife, and a job that depends on political and economic stability in the region. I love Taiwan, I have much understanding of what's going on, but this is not my fight. I won't join any protest (and as a foreigner that has its own risks), I'm just observing, reporting to the outside world, sharing my thoughts, and trying to comprehend everything as best as possible. But in all that's going on right now my family is for me the top priority, I will do everything and anything to make sure they are safe and sound, and if necessary return to Europe. Eventually the students will have to leave the legislature, and let the currently elected representatives solve this problem through political means, the longer the occupation goes on, the more difficult it will be to come up with better alternative solutions. As harmful as this services pact might be for Taiwan's future, there has to be a limit of how far the students' movement can go, there has to be an exit strategy for the current status quo. This occupation is already leaving a precedent for all future conflicts of a similar kind, and if one day the opposition is blue and does a similar thing, can those who are now in the the Legislative Yuan, and might be Taiwan's future leaders, say anything against it? This reality has to slowly sink in, the sooner it does, the better. We will have municipal elections in November, and two years later people will have the chance to elect a new president. If the current passion for change is real and has a nation-wide support, we will get that change very soon through democratic means, and every for Taiwan disadvantageous bilateral trade pact can be swiftly amended, or completely removed by the new administration. What Taiwan doesn't need is a deeper political crisis with wider implications. A piece of legislature can be changed pretty fast, a reform can be implemented very quickly, too, but a broken democracy and a hurting economy will need much longer to recover. This whole paragraph is directed to both sides of the conflict.

Tuesday, March 11, 2014

Life happened

From my Instagram: Girls skating in the Yuquan Park

I've not been well of late. Too much stress at work and in the family, health issues, bad weather, not much free time... problems of all sorts seem to be plaguing these days. A lot of bad things have happened so early in the year, I'm wondering how much worse can it get. There are periods where I really don't enjoy my life in Taiwan, where I'd just like to go back to the little nest I left a few years ago in pursuit of a better life. I miss the feeling of being completely problem free, but the nature of my current life makes it impossible. Vacation doesn't make sense right now, because I would bring my problems with me. A change from the ground up is necessary, but I feel too weak to do something bold. If only we'd get some sunshine in Taipei, things would a little bit less bleak. Maybe it was unwise to write about polarizing issues these days, because the virality of my post caused heated debates and unpleasant emails, something I definitely didn't need in addition to all the recent stress. While I'm happy that people like to read and share my stuff, I sometimes miss the time when this blog had like 3 readers and commentators. It's interesting that one of them commented just recently. But when I'm not well, and tend to see things very critically, I think that I'm writing faster and better, but it splits readers into pro and contra fractions, which I don't like. I have to find the inner balance again, and I'm sure once that happens, it will be reflected on this blog. Until then let's hope the current weather in Taipei will get better. So may I.

Saturday, March 8, 2014

Taipei 101 disappeared today

One of the things that always amazes me is how quickly Taipei 101, once world's tallest building, disappears when we have rainy weather. The view from my apartment building is really awesome, and I often take photos of central Taipei and its most famous landmark. The top photo is from 2 weeks ago on a sunny day, the bottom photo is from today. You can click on each image to enlarge it and get a panoramic view of the city.

Sunny day: Taipei 101 is dominating the skyline.

Rainy day: Taipei 101 has disappeared.

Tuesday, March 4, 2014

Will Taiwan-China be the next Ukraine-Russia?

To those who are living in Taiwan the recent events between Ukraine and Russia must look very familiar, and could be a frightening precedent as to what we might see in this part of the world in the near future. Of course these are two different conflicts between two different countries, that have different ideologies, histories, ethnicities, and geopolitical implications, but nevertheless, there are parallels which I want to highlight here in few highly simplified points just to start a discussion. Now let me clarify, that I am no expert on these things, but I know both regions quite well, and I am very concerned.

Will Taiwan follow Ukraine's path?

1. Parallel: Ukraine and Taiwan are politically divided

The popular (and in 2014 already outdated) idea is that Taiwanese are divided into north and south, north being predominantly Mandarin speaking and pro-China, while the south is predominantly Taiwanese-speaking and pro-Taiwan. Ukraine is commonly described as being divided into West and East, west being predominantly Ukrainian-speaking and pro-Ukraine, while the East is predominantly Russian-speaking and pro-Russia. In both cases the languages and geographical location don't necessarily indicate a particular political affinity, the divisions from the past are now much more complex, the lines are blurrier than ever, especially when it comes to younger generations, nevertheless there is still some truth in these simplifications.

2. Parallel: Citizens fight for a corrupt-free and democratic country, against foreign interference

Just like Taiwan's sovereignty is heavily undermined by China, so is Ukraine's by Russia. In both cases the Cold War has not fully ended, its legacy is passed on to the next generation. But young Ukrainians and young Taiwanese want something better, they want to decide the fate of their country, and leave the past behind. Both are willing to go on the streets for their convictions and aspirations, the protests in Kiev's Maidan were truly impressive, but Taiwan is definitely not lagging behind when it comes to mobilizing people. The only difference is that the situation in Ukraine is much more dire. People were pushed to the edge, and managed to overthrow their leader. Taiwan is much more stable right now, and the economy is still doing relatively well on paper. In reality wages are getting lower and lower, while the living cost is rising. A lot of young Taiwanese are asking themselves: How long will this go on? Sadly, a lot of young talents are becoming foreign workers in other countries.

3. Parallel: People want to get rid of their leader

While Viktor Yanukovych, the former president of Ukraine, was ousted from his presidency just a while ago by the indestructible perseverance of the people, and a wider national coalition, his Taiwanese counterpart Ma doesn't enjoy much support among the people who elected him not too long ago. Nearly 75% are unsatisfied with his performance, and this high dissatisfaction level remains unchanged more or less since he was sworn in for his second term in 2012. While he's not under threat to be ousted, the next 2 years until the end of his second and last term will be very rocky. Let's be clear: Ma is no Yanukovych, but there are definitely similarities in the relationship between the people who voted them into office, and their quick disappointment soon after.

4. Parallel: The leader is friendly towards the big neighbor

Just like Ukraine's former president Yanukovych, who is perceived as pro-Russia, Taiwan's current president Ma is seen as pro-China. The problem is that both Russia and China, two totalitarian countries, believe they are historically, ethnically, and linguistically connected to their smaller neighbors, and use that as a justification to pursue political influence with the goal of eventual annexation. Putin supposedly said in 2008 to George W. Bush: "Ukraine is not even a state! What is Ukraine? Part of its territory is Eastern Europe, but part of it – a considerable part – was gifted by us!" The Chinese government still claims "Taiwan is an inalienable part of China" and is pursuing policies to limit its international presence and bilateral relations with other countries. Russia is opposing Ukraine's membership into NATO or EU, and instead tries to lure it into the Eurasian Union, which goes against the will of the Ukrainian people similarly to how an incorporation of Taiwan into China goes against the will of the majority of Taiwanese.

5. Parallel: Governments create economic dependency on the big neighbor

Taiwan's economy is more and more tied to China, from production to export, the current government is betting everything on one horse (no pun intended). In 2012 China (together with Hong Kong) made up over 40% of all Taiwan's exports (source) and was by far Taiwan's number 1 export partner. Similarly nearly 26% of Ukraine's exports went to Russia, which was its number 1 export country (source). It doesn't take an expert to realize that this growing dependency has already become a big problem for current and future generations. Both regimes in Russia and China use it to assert political influence that serves their interests and the ultimate goal of eventual annexation.

Image from Maidan in Kiev. I took this photo last year when everything was peaceful.

6. Parallel: Supporters of the big country use chauvinism to disqualify the small country's culture and identity

The Russian propaganda machine against Ukraine is going full throttle now, sadly also on Taiwanese forums, and in many other parts of the world wide web. Ukrainian language is portrayed as "a Russian dialect" with some Polish elements, Ukrainian culture and identity are belittled, Ukrainian history is explained only from Russian imperialist perspective. Some media went as far as to label the recent pro-EU protesters as "fascists", and Putin and his military as liberators and peacemakers. If you change the word Ukraine with Taiwan, and Russia with China, and read my paragraph again, you will realize that the same tactics is used in this part of the world. It's a textbook propaganda, and sadly it often works.

7. Parallel: The military is just around the corner and willing to strike any time

What we see unfolding these days in Crimea, and perhaps soon in other parts of Ukraine, we might see one day in Taiwan. Russia's army is not far from Ukraine, in fact it's already inside, so is China's army just around the corner waiting to invade, and at the same time expanding at an incredibly fast pace. 1600 ballistic weapons are pointed at Taiwan today, and they shall be deployed in case Taiwanese people decide to change constitution and proclaim formal independence. Or perhaps it won't even need anything drastic to trigger mobilization, an arbitrary excuse may not be hard to find as we see it with Putin these days. A lot of analysts don't argue anymore "whether China will invade", but "when China will invade" Taiwan. It's a very uncomfortable truth, something that we Westerners in Taiwan have to face in our mind quite often, but tend to put it aside and dismiss it. "It won't happen" we often tell to ourselves, but after the recent events in Ukraine, a country that geopolitically bears striking similarities with Taiwan, who can really be sure that something like this won't happen here?

Debate below, but keep it classy, if you want to be published.

Friday, February 28, 2014

I visited the 228 Museum

I visited the National 228 Memorial Museum today, I was there around 2PM. I thought there will be much more people visiting since it's 228, but it were less than I expected. There was a movie screening, which attracted a lot of visitors, but the exhibition areas were not that crowded. Are people losing interest in 228? Or it's because we had a sunny Friday, and many locals chose to go somewhere else? Maybe I wasn't there at the best time, I will never know. Meanwhile Taiwan's president Ma said something worthy to highlight:
"I am here to promise again that the government will defend democracy and freedom in Taiwan. It is crucial to consolidate the core values of democracy and institutionalize the protection of human rights so that tragedies like the 228 Incident will not happen again"
I'm not sure how accurate this quote is, because I could not find the Chinese original (I only found a summary), but in case it reflects his actual feelings, I commend him for this statement. Nevertheless many critics say his actions go against what he supposedly said.

The museum, that was established to remember one of the most horrible events in Taiwan's modern history, felt very unassuming, which was kind of surreal. You won't see much of the original footage of the gruesome massacres, but there's plenty of other evidence and relics of those times. The focus is more on remembering those who died, rather than how they died. Unfortunately only a small part is in English, and it's more like a summary. Nevertheless, it's still worth and important to visit, even if you're a foreigner, and not 100% fluent in Chinese.

Don't wait until the next 228. Visit any time.